Something in the Air (Après mai) Review
The French title of Olivier Assayas's new film is Après mai and it assumes you will know that refers to one specific May, that of 1968 and the civil unrest and student occupations in France. Its repercussions are still being felt as the film begins, in 1971, “not far from Paris”, where Gilles (Clément Métayer) is a student with a talent for art. Outside school hours he and his friends Christine (Lola Créton) and Alain (Félix Armand) are involved in left-wing politics, and soon we're plunged straight into a demonstration violently broken up by baton-wielding police. With the departure of Gilles's girlfriend Laure (Carole Combes) to London, he and Christine become lovers. When an altercation with security forces leaves a guard in a coma, the three escape to Italy...
Assayas's previous film was Carlos made for French television as a five-hour, three-part miniseries yet also released to cinemas at full length and also in a two-and-three-quarter-hour cut-down version. In that it also deals with 70s radical politics, Something in the Air is a companion piece, but tonally it could not be more different. While Carlos was hard-edged, Something in the Air, semi-autobiographical in inspiration, is warmer, softer-centred and positively nostalgic. It's a portrait of a time and place, a time and an age when students thought they could change the world, even if their attitudes and actions seem quite naïve in retrospect. Assayas acknowledges all this, but makes the case that this youthful passion mattered. It's an episodic narrative of Gilles's coming of age, of his and his friends coming to terms with worldly preoccupations in ways that may have appalled their firebrand selves only a year or so earlier. Assayas doesn't ignore the divisions between his soixante-huitards (there's a scene where a Maoist denounces a book critical of Mao's Cultural Revolution as CIA-backed slander – well we know where history stands on that one now) but for all the discussion and debate on display, this is actually less political a film than it might sound. It's more concerned with mood and nuances of period detail, some of which is provided by Gilles's enviable record collection, with Syd Barrett and Kevin Ayers featuring particularly significantly on the soundtrack. (The Thunderclap Newman number one hit from 1969, from which this film derives its English-language title does not actually make an appearance.) At one point, Gilles's filmmaking ambitions are derailed by a collective's insistence on making agitprop rather than fiction films. It's clear where Gilles's – and Assayas's sympathies lie. At the end of the film, Gilles is in England, working on a fantasy film involving sea monsters and Nazis. (Assayas himself was an editorial intern on the 1978 Superman and third assistant director on The Prince and the Pauper the year before.) In the final scene, he goes to a showing of experimental film – at the real-life Electric in Notting Hill – and on screen faces his two real loves. One is cinema; you'll have to see this film for the other one.
In Something in the Air we spend two hours in the company of young people, who are full of passion, full of idealism, full of energy...and more than once, frankly, full of shit. You may feel that this is a very well made film that over-indulges its characters. Or you may be on the director's side, taking this as a portrait of a much less cynical time that should not be so easily dismissed and could be learned from.
Something in the Air is released by Artificial Eye on both Blu-ray and DVD. It was the latter which was supplied for review, and comments and affiliate links refer to that edition. Affiliate links for the Blu-ray can be found here. The DVD is dual-layered and PAL format and encoded for Region 2 only.
The DVD transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1. Something in the Air was shot on film (3-perf Super 35, for those who like to know these things) and Eric Gaultier's cinematography has a muted, rather washed-out look, tending towards bluish, especially in the earlier sequences set in the Parisian suburbs. Other sequences, especially those in Italy, feature bright greens and plenty of sun-baked vistas. This is a fine transfer, very much the way the film looked in a cinema.
Carlos was possibly the most polyglot film I've ever seen, with four main languages spoken and at least six others in short sequences. Something in the Air features three: French for the most part, but with significant passages of English, especially when American dance student Leslie (India Salvor Menuez), who becomes Alain's girlfriend, is on screen, and Italian for much of the sequence set in that country. English subtitles, for the French and Italian dialogue only, are optional. The soundtrack comes in two flavours, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0). There's not a great deal of difference between them, with the surrounds used mainly for music and ambience (though note a musical figure doing a circuit of your speakers near the end). The subwoofer particularly helps out during the riot scenes.
The extras begin with an interview with Assayas (9:06), conducted in English. He talks about the film being based on the experiences of himself and his friends at the time (born in 1955, he is a year or so younger than his central characters). Assayas expresses some regrets that his was not more politically engaged: like Gilles, he moved away from overt politics into a career in art and filmmaking, though questioning himself all the way.
The making-of documentary (18:28) is also based on an interview with Assayas, this time in French (with optional English subtitles), interspersed with extracts from the film and on-set footage. Inevitably this does repeat much of the solo interview. It concludes with a two-minute light show. The extras conclude with the UK theatrical trailer (2:22), which has fixed subtitles.
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